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How Leo Burnett went from ‘underdog’ to triple threat


By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

July 6, 2022 | 5 min read

Amid a sea of New York-based creative agencies, one Chicago firm brought home three Grand Prix trophies this year: the Leo Burnett Group. Here’s how the agency’s leaders developed an internal system that creates multi-award-winning work.

leo burnett's skyscraper in chicago

Leo Burnett Group's Chicago headquarters / Adobe Stock

The Chicago-based creative agency that once created the iconic Frosted Flakes Tony the Tiger and Marlboro Man is once again reigning supreme, as evidenced by its successes at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last month.

Specifically, Leo Burnett Chicago earned a Grand Prix in Creative Commerce for Wingstop’s ’Thighstop,’ while Leo Burnett Australia won the Grand Prix in Innovation for Suncorp’s ‘One House to Save Many,’ and Leo Burnett India took home the Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix for P&G’s ’The Missing Chapter.’ That’s not to mention the several Bronze and Silver Lions that the agency also took home this year.

As chief executive officer of Publicis Groupe Creative US and Leo Burnett Groupe Andrew Swinand puts it, Leo has “been baking this bread,” or rather developing a surefire recipe for success, since he took the agency’s helm five years ago.

Previously, Swinand co-founded Abundant Venture Partners, a Chicago-based business incubator for healthcare and technology startups. Within six years, he incubated 19, founded nine and sold seven companies. He joined Leo after the agency acquired two of his analytics companies.

At the agency, Swinand embarked on a complete overhaul of the executive floor and office space, and in their place, installed a collaborative workspace. There, he hosted open dialogues about modern creativity with the senior leaders from Google, Facebook and Adobe. He says that doing so gave Leo a “competitive advantage” because “the best work comes from an environment of congenial collaboration.”

Then, Leo Burnett's team built what Swinand calls the “sharpener wall” – a physical wall upon which Leo’s employees post their ideas to be relentlessly challenged and buttressed by other team members.

“There’s a lot of ego in advertising. What sets Leo apart is that people are willing to give and accept feedback,” he explains. “We are constantly stepping back to see where we see creative opportunity and how to make it bigger, better and more integrated. That’s a huge benefit for our clients.”

According to Swinand, Leo’s ability to innovate, incubate and evolve ideas came directly from the playbook of the startups world. In fact, it provided the fodder for Wingstop’s award-winning ‘Thightstop’ campaign. The lighthearted campaign was born from a real supply chain shortage of chicken wings. Leo’s team decided to address the situation with humor, but only after the concept survived rigorous internal critiques.

“The only real trick to doing great work is being perpetually unsatisfied,” adds Leo Burnett’s Chicago’s President and chief creative officer Britt Nolan. “Kill everything that doesn’t make you impatient for it to exist in the world.”

Like ‘Thighstop,’ the “One House to Save Many” campaign was a way for the agency to collaborate on current-day issues. The 23-minute documentary demonstrates how Australia’s largest home insurer, Suncorp, can protect homes on the island from devastating wildfires.

Leo’s team of 7,000 global employees are working to maintain the agency’s place at the top and establish Chicago as the next global hub for creativity.

“I love Chicago, because it always feels like we’re the underdogs,” Nolan adds. “New York is the cool kid, but it’s also got a big ego. Not Chicago. Chicago has something to prove. That keeps you hungry.”

“We want Leo Burnett to be the most admired and coveted creative business in the world,” added Chaka Sobhani, Global Chief Creative Officer, Leo Burnett Worldwide. “One that is simultaneously the most attractive to work at and for as employees, and the most sought after to work with for clients."

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